It’s a milestone year for His Bobness – 70 years old! And still playing to crowds, with no sign of drawing back or retiring. In celebration of his work and life, so far, I thought I’d gather ten quality cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, representing several eras and styles.
The fact that these songs fit so well into the musical milleu of each artist represented here certainly says something about the quality of material. Soul, punk, folk-pop, reggae, and more are represented here, as if the songs were always meant for them. Such is the breadth of Dylan’s influence on other songwriters and performers.
The results of this kind of influence are mixed, of course. Sometimes, you get Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which in turn influenced how Dylan himself approached the song. Sometimes, you get Panic At the Disco’s take on “Desolation Row”, with all of the bluster and none of the poetry.
No matter what the genre or approach or degree of artistic success, Dylan’s influence is a motivating force, with a strength of material that can’t be denied, and with the power to inform and transform the writing of others.
So, without further ado, here’s the list, which is nothing but quality cover versions, kids!
Here’s a jagged, appropriately ramshackle version of Dylan’s 1974 Planet Waves tune once recorded with the Band, and one of my favourites all-around. Richard Hell repositions this song about despair into an proto-punk assault, although with a sort of Rolling Stones-like looseness. This is the spokesman for one generation (the Blank one, to be specific) taking a shot at a song written by that of another, although it seems like the theme of despair translates without too much of a problem in whichever generation it’s being sung about.
Another version from a musician known for a punk past, or at least a post-punk one with some Paisley patterns, being a founding member of the Soft Boys. Actually, Robyn Hitchcock was always a Dylan fan, eventually recording an album of covers, Robyn Sings Dylan. But, this is my favourite Dylan cover by Hitchcock; a song about aging, and about wondering what it all means. Perhaps with Hitchcock’s reputation for whimsy and surreal approaches to lyric writing, you might think that he couldn’t pull off a song about earnest, existential angst. And yet, here it is, full of pathos and poignancy.
In 1969, Dylan recorded Nashville Skyline, a record of in-and-out country-pop songs. This happened after a long period of writing epic songs full of Biblical gravity, Ginsbergian imagery, and Rimbaud-esque romance. And many years later, Norah Jones recorded this take on one of the highpoints of that album, knowing a thing or two about in-and-out country pop songs that don’t skimp on substance. Here, Jones’ pure voice is held in contrast to what might be considered the impurity of the intentions of the song’s narrative. Gotta love that!
This is one of the most important anthems of the Civil Rights movement, having asked one of the most important questions of that time; when does someone from a marginalized class gain their full citizenship, and humanity? How appropriate then to have the song translated through a soul music filter, and at the hands of a master of the form – O.V Wright. Here, the song sounds as if it’s coming from a pulpit, with the questions in the song being a call to action, as well as being a version of the song that is reminds the listener of the importance of identity and dignity during a period in history when those things were not a given for many people.
A song about the rashness of youth from a band that pretty much symbolized the rashness of youth? Well, why not. In Dylan’s case, he was examining where his career had taken him as a protest singer, placing him in the public eye as a voice of authority perhaps despite his own ultimate intentions. The Ramones bash out the song, and reveal the rock n roll nature of it beyond self-examination; that basically, this is a song about rebellion against one’s past, with a defiance to be found in there to break free of it. Now, that’s punk rock!
One thing that Dylan began to really excel at by the mid-70s was the kind of song that seemed to suggest a cinematic tone, a suggestion of a narrative with characters, events, and emotional motivations left for the listener to fill in. Perhaps his later foray into film was built on the back of this impulse to write songs like this. In any case, this one is one of his best songs of this ilk, rendered here by folk-rock duo Indigo Girls on their 1995 1200 Curfews live album, including a performance by original Dylan violinist Scarlett Rivera. This version I’d heard before I’d heard the original, a stunning introduction to a compelling story inside of a song, with the gender roles unchanged to make it even more universal.
The very American song, full as it is of travelling salesmen, road trips, unsaleable goods, and wrathful gods is translated here by British singer-songwriter Polly Jean Harvey, made somehow more threatening and less whimsical than the original. Ironically, even if Harvey introduced an industrial texture to this rendition, she was pulling from American blues music quite a bit at the time, one of the many musical tributaries that inspired Dylan as well.
Malkmus had functioned as one of the main movers in the band Pavement, later having started a solo career of his own by 2001, crafting character-centric songs, not unlike this tune originally appearing on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and recorded during the 1966 tour on what would come to be known as the “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg. It’s this latter version which Malkmus seems to be referencing here, with some very Garth Hudson-style keyboards serving a second voice behind Malkmus’ lead. And as you can see, Malkmus’ feel for character-driven songs shines brightly here on one of Dylan’s best character-driven songs.
What many people forget is that Bob Dylan wrote some of the most eloquent love songs of the modern era, with this being one of the best. And another thing that people forget is that Rod Stewart was once the greatest rock vocalist on earth. Stewart’s understanding of texture and delivery brings out the eloquence here, during a period in his career when he was basically untouchable as an interpreter in the rock world. Of course it helps that his choices in arrangements fully support the down-home, back-porch feel of the original.
Although it’s well-known that Dylan recorded at least three albums worth of self-penned gospel songs, my favourite song of a spiritual nature is this one, written and recorded well before that ‘gospel Bob’ period. “Mr Tambourine Man” has always seemed to me like a song to the ineffable sense of wonder which drives the spiritual seeker. And here’s a great version by reggae singer Gregory Isaacs, interpreting the song in a reggae style, and losing none of its vulnerability and contented and resigned sense of weariness. If anything, we get even more.
And as to the song’s meaning, is “Mr. Tambourine Man” God? Knowing Dylan, I doubt it’s that simple.
Happy birthday, Bob!